By the turn of the 21st century, Buddhadeb Dasgupta had begun to recede from the collective memories of Bengali cineastes. As the internet and a globalized economy brought in goodies in the form of DVDs, DVD rips, torrent downloads, and streaming services, no longer did film buffs have to wait for annual film festivals to catch up on “art cinema”. Not only that. One need not have to live in cine-literate metro cities to enjoy cinematic gems from across the globe. And thus, like with Indian footballers after the advent of the live transmission of European league football — his pre-eminence as the last of the titans of Bengali arthouse cinema, too, began to wane, while he became more reclusive with age.
That didn’t stop his prolific output, though. Since 2000, he had directed 11 features — one more than what he had helmed in his first three decades as an auteur — through his rarely-displayed work in documentary films died down. So did his international acclaim. From being a regular invitee to the marquee film festivals of Europe — Venice, Berlin, and Cannes — he had slowly been relegated to the Serie B of the festival circuit — Karlovy Vary, Toronto, Locarno — as his style and content evolved from gritty realism to poetic musings on liminal characters.
Never one to wear his politics on his sleeve, the lecturer of economics did display concern and awareness of everyday politics in his early phase that coincided with the decade of Naxalite turmoil in the 70s. From Dooratwa (Distance) in 1978, till Andhi Gali (The Blind Alley) in 1984, his films — gritty dramas all — were set in the backdrop of political and economic doldrums of the present, and while dealing with individual middle-class conflicts, were never too far from the urban decay of Kolkata.
But then, as the short 1980s gave way to the long 1990s, and ushered in winds of neoliberal change, the economist in Dasgupta gave way to the poet — he already had several volumes of highly praised poetry to his name by then.
In this, perhaps his most well-recognized phase among film buffs, certainly his most internationally feted period — he began directing films dealing with characters from the Bengal countryside that can be best bunched as outcastes — Ghunuram (Pavan Malhotra) in Bagh Bahadur (1989), Shibnath (Mithun Chakraborty) in Tahader Katha, Lakhinder (Rajit Kapoor) in Charachar (1993), Nemai (Tapas Paul) and Balaram (Shankar Chakraborty) in Uttara (2000). These are characters that would have rarely been seen in real life by his home audience in Kolkata, though they would have heard of their types from family elders — leaving the audience with a sense of familiarity and distance in equal measure. Collectively, they also distanced him from his audience, as he began banking on more marketable (and undoubtedly more competent) names for title roles from Hindi and other regional cinema. But his faithful audience in Bengal slowly began to withdraw from his films, jarred by the dubbing of Bengali voices over the virtuoso acting, something that left the creator unnerved — how, then, could Italian Neorealism prosper with rampant and quite pathetic dubbing over actors from France, Germany, and America, he had mused once.
But that didn’t stop him from rediscovering himself, exploring newer and unexpected territories — Ami, Yasmin ar Amar Madhubala (2007) being one — even as awards kept pouring in. Eventually, though, he became pigeonholed into a caricature — someone who made films for international festival audiences and didn’t bother to release them at home, for the audience in whose language the film was made. It left a bitter imprint on his mind in his last years. Perhaps now, his films will serendipitously find a newer, more sympathetic audience, as they rightfully deserve.
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